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Book Review: Words Matter: “Learning the Grammar of Animacy”

Editor’s Note: Robin Wall Kimmerer, Author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, a 2013 nonfiction book that explores reciprocal relationships between humans and the land, with a focus on the role of plants and botany in both Native American and Western traditions, will be speaking in Gettysburg on Monday, Sept. 19 at 7:00 p.m. in the Gettysburg College Ballroom.  The public is invited to attend. Admission is free. This article is a review of the book by local resident Will Lane.

A mushroom can rise in the woods overnight, “pushing upward from pine needle duff… still glistening with the fluid of its passage.”  If we have a specific word for that sudden rising, and for the power that lifts the mushrooms so mysteriously out of the ground, do we see these things differently?

Robin Wall Kimmerer says we do.  In her essay “Learning the Grammar of Animacy” from her bestselling book Braiding Sweetgrass, the distinguished botanist and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, argues that words matter, that the languages we speak and think with shape our understanding of ourselves and of the natural world.

“Science polishes the gift of seeing,” she says, but there are costs. It reveals but also conceals.  It distances us, turning nature and creatures into something less than they might actually be. “It reduces a being to its working parts.”  But much lies beyond our scientific language and remains unnamed and therefore unseen.

Indigenous cultures and their languages, Kimmerer argues, can help us see more of what’s there. That mysterious rising and emergence from the ground mentioned above is Puhpowee in Potawatomi, one of more than 350 indigenous languages in the Americas, many of which may soon be lost.  When Kimmerer sets out to learn Potawatomi, the language of her ancestors, she discovers at a tribal gathering that only nine native speakers of the language are left.  Without native speakers to keep the language alive, a whole way of seeing the world may be lost as well.

English is noun-based.  Potawatomi has a greater percentage of verbs: 70% compared to 30% in English. Things that sit quietly as nouns in English, in Potawatomi are verbs and are in motion. “To be a hill, to be a sandy beach, to be a Saturday, all are possible verbs in a world where everything is alive,”  she says. Inanimate objects tend to be only those objects that are made by people.

“In Potawatomi and other indigenous languages we use the same words to address the living world as we use for our family,” she says. And, that living world is much bigger and more diverse in Potawatomi than in English and other European languages: “…rocks are animate, as are mountains and water and fire and places.”

“English doesn’t give us many tools for incorporating respect for animacy,” she continues. “In English you are either a human or a thing…. Where are our words for the simple existence of another living being? The arrogance of English is that the only way to be animate, to be worthy of respect and moral concern, is to be human.”

Kimmerer’s own study of Potawatomi is frustrating at times for her.  She studies online with a class once a week, and covers the house with post-it notes attached to common items. “I have become,” she says, “a woman who speaks Potawatomi to household objects.”  But the new language is subtle in the distinctions it makes and extremely varied in its forms. “You hear a person with a word that is completely different from the one with which you hear an airplane,” she says. “Different verb forms, different plurals, different everything apply depending on whether what you are speaking of is alive…. No wonder there are only nine speakers left,” she exclaims at one point.

Should we all study an Indigenous language in order to better understand the natural world?  Kimmerer seems to say, maybe not. She seems to be after something deeper, an understanding of the way all language structures our experience of the world and of one another. What we need to do, she suggests, is to learn to speak the “grammar of animacy,” which I suspect can be done in many different languages, all of which, she says, “are to be cherished.” If we can do that, we may at last become “native to this place” and be “at home” at last.

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Will Lane, a founding member of Green Gettysburg and the Green Gettysburg Book Club, is a Lecturer in English and Affiliated Faculty Member with Environmental Studies at Gettysburg College.

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  • Thanks, Will! This will take my love of words and language to another place not far away! Thanks, GC for publishing!

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